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We can't ignore the digital skills gap any longer - 3 ways to future-proof your workforce

Peter Schwartz Profile picture for user pschwartz March 1, 2022
The digital skills gap has widened, in part due to the speed of innovation. Peter Schwarz of Salesforce sets out three ways to narrow the divide.

Digital skills gap in the human workforce concept © LeoWolfert - Shutterstock
(© LeoWolfert - Shutterstock)

Increasingly, daily interactions across every facet of our lives take place virtually — from ordering groceries, to taking courses, to scheduling vaccine appointments. An unprecedented wave of digital transformation across all industries is intensifying demand for new workplace skills. As a result, the gap in digital skills readiness in the global workforce has never been greater.

According to a recent Salesforce survey of more than 23,000 workers and prospective workers across 19 countries, only 17% of respondents considered themselves “advanced” in job-related digital skills, while nearly half considered themselves “beginners.” In aggregate, workers rated themselves just 33 out of 100 on digital skills readiness

Why the workforce can’t keep up 

Part of the reason behind this chasm is generational. Younger workers who grew up as digital natives are innately more at ease with new technology than their older counterparts. In the survey, for example, just 17% of Baby Boomers felt “very equipped” for a digital-first workplace. But younger generations are also feeling behind, with less than one-third of Gen Z respondents rating themselves as “very equipped.”

The main culprit behind the digital skills gap is the astonishing pace of innovation. There has always been a lag between the development of new technology and the diffusion of skills needed to use it. However, what’s new is the speed of innovation and digital transformation, which has accelerated further amid the imperatives of the pandemic.

Nearly every customer interaction and transaction now has a digital component, sparking increased demand for digital skills such as virtual collaboration and automation. In this landscape, even the most adept workers are constantly challenged to master new technologies in order to keep up.

Meanwhile, the educational models and methods needed to get workers up to speed are lacking. According to the survey, less than one-third of respondents felt “very equipped” with resources to learn the digital skills they need to succeed today; only 24% felt this way about skills needed in the next five years.

Finding ways to upskill and reskill today’s workforce is critical, both to keep businesses competitive and to ensure workers don’t get left behind in the new economy.

Three strategies to close the digital skills gap

To realize the vast opportunity that comes with addressing the digital skills gap, companies, governments, and communities must work together to invest in meaningful training opportunities.

Here are three focus areas to ensure the future workforce doesn’t get left behind:

1. Enable continuous and peer-to-peer learning

Business leaders don’t need to start from scratch to arm workers with digital job skills. A majority of workers surveyed said they wanted to learn new skills in order to progress in their current careers.

In today’s hyper-busy and work-from-anywhere world, people don’t have much time or patience for day-long training seminars. Nor is the traditional model of occasional training sufficient to keep up with ever-evolving technology. Instead, businesses need to provide bite-sized, personalized training opportunities that are continuous and available anywhere, anytime. Tools like Trailhead, Salesforce's free remote learning platform, make on-demand learning accessible to everyone, regardless of background or geographic location.

Employers can also leverage another key resource to close the digital skills gap: their people. Communities are powerful enablers and motivators for learning. Team members can inspire each other to progress, share knowledge and resources, and network around opportunities.

2. Don’t assume Gen Z has it figured out

Cultivating the next generation of talent is critical. Younger workers tend to have a leg up in digital savviness, and many are motivated to learn more about the skills and tools that enable them to succeed. According to the survey, more than one-third of Gen Z and Millennial workers are “very actively” participating in digital skills education. Still, the remaining majority are behind in technology training.

One strategy for reaching younger generations is to gamify learning. Workers who grew up playing video games are already familiar with acquiring digital skills on the fly, and educating others. Gaming platforms can partner with businesses and schools to deliver innovative learning tools that help the gaming generation master digital skills. Platforms like Open Social have done this already.

Another remedy is for schools and colleges to embrace digital skills as core competencies, on par with reading and arithmetic. Too often, these capabilities are still seen as extras or luxuries. Yet digital literacy is now pivotal to functioning in the workplace, and in the world. Educational institutions, governments, nonprofits and businesses must all collaborate to ensure digital skills become the default in curricula. One example of this is improving access to STEM courses.

3. Focus training programs on top digital skills

Not all digital skills are created equal. According to the survey, cybersecurity and encryption were rated among the skills most important to workplace success, now and in the future.

Protecting data and networks from unauthorized access is the bedrock of the digital economy, and it can’t be left to technology alone. Most breaches result from human behavior, such as revealing a password or downloading malware. Data breaches and cyberattacks undermine customer trust and can be profoundly disruptive to organizations, so it is critical that training programs emphasize understanding and properly executing information technology security.

Another key area for investment is collaboration technology skills. Even before the pandemic, an enormous amount of interaction occurred in the digital realm. In the current hybrid work environment, connecting virtually has only become more essential, with digital collaboration becoming the default mode. Learning to use collaboration technology tools, like Slack, Microsoft Teams, Google Chat and Zoom, is a prerequisite for success in most fields. Building training programs that respond to what workers actually want and need to know about these tools is a major opportunity for companies.

Lifelong learning is the key to long-term success

The time for one-and-done educational experiences is over. As the pace of innovation continues to quicken and the digital skills gap grows wider than ever, workers of all ages and levels need opportunities for continuous learning that integrate into daily life.

The good news is that most employees are eager to brush up on in-demand digital skills — they just lack access to the right training resources.

Businesses, educational institutions and governments need to work together to cultivate the skills that workers need to succeed in the new digital economy.

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